Author Interview: May Tobias-Papa

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Citation for Araw sa Palengke [A Day at the Market], written by May Tobias-Papa and illustrated by Isabel Roxas (Adarna House, 2008), from the Philippine National Children's Book Awards 2010:

"Listen well," her mother tells her. "Hold on to me tightly, ha? So you won't get lost. And don't point at things that you want me to buy for you." And so the story begins with a promise: "Yes, Nanay, I promise."

Early one morning, a little girl accompanies her mother to the market. They take readers with them. The market is hot and noisy, smelly and muddy, but it's also fascinating and colorful, because it's seen from a point of view that's only about three feet tall. When they arrive home, and our little girl unpacks the bayong (bag) to find a surprise wrapped in newspaper at the bottom, it's her joy we feel in the little dance that she does.

Araw sa Palengke is a true marriage of text and visual image. The story by May Tobias-Papa is gentle and straightforward, and the illustrations by Isabel Roxas are charming and finely detailed. The result is a lighthearted picture book that is nuanced, controlled, and thoroughly engaging. A really good read.

{Click on image to enlarge and enjoy a spread from the book. Image provided by Adarna House. All rights reserved.}

Children's book illustrator Sergio Bumatay III describes Araw sa Palengke as a picture book that "invests on the importance of emotional intelligence. It subtly teaches a child that being patient and disciplined yields to pleasant rewards, and the joys of receiving it through hard work and a little sacrifice is priceless. This is what kids need nowadays when the words 'instant' and 'push-buttons' are just a click away." I couldn't agree more with his insight, but do not worry dear readers, Araw sa Palengke is not didactic drivel. It is first and foremost a good STORY - with the most adorable illustrations. Perfect for snuggling in bed with your kids. And today, author May Tobias-Papa is here to share her inspiration and writing process for Araw sa Palengke.

{The author with her husband Alcuin and their son Anton. Aren't they just the cutest family?}

Congratulations on winning a Philippine National Children's Book Award, May! I'm so glad you were there for the awards ceremony. What was going through your head while waiting for the announcement of the winners? I heard a cry of joy when Araw sa Palengke was announced a winner. Was that you?

Thank you so much, Tarie. Do you know that I really wasn't expecting it? When I got the invitation earlier that week, I had confirmed my attendance with the NBDB Secretariat not having an idea I even had a couple of finalists in the NCBA. I just wanted to attend the very first NCBA ceremonies. But then Ergoe Tinio (of the PBBY Secretariat and Adarna) who took my call congratulated me, and that was the only time I found out that Araw sa Palengke had been nominated by Adarna. The details of the judging was veiled in super secrecy, that hardly anybody knew anything.

It was a wonderful surprise, of course. The realization that one of the books I worked on (a book I edited was also nominated) may already be a shoo-in for an award dawned on me when I was already sitting in the function hall. I was looking at all the authors and illustrators who were coming in and I thought there really weren't too many of us. And that was when my stomach turned and I prayed hard that my knees won't buckle under me as I tottered on my stilletos to the stage once I hear my name announced. The funny thing was, my name wasn't even called out yet, and as if I were in some sort of trance, I stood up to walk and go up the stage as soon as I heard judge Mailin Paterno-Locsin say Araw sa Palengke. Too late, I was already on the stage when I realized my gaffe. I had to summon all my stock dignity and poise as I listened through the reading of the citation--on the stage. Goodness. My publisher, Ani Almario, with her enviable coolness and poise, did not join me till after Ms. Locsin had read through the citation and had properly acknowledged the team. But no, I was never really a screamer. That wasn't me, hahaha. I'm more the one who's very likely to faint. Especially as Ms. Locsin read an excerpt from the book and she looked and smiled at me at one point. The citation gave me goose bumps. "This is really happening," I told myself. I wanted to cry, hahaha.

What was your path to publication as a children's book author? What motivates you to write for children?

It all started when I attended a series of writing workshops called "Writing Class" at the Ayala Museum. I was doing some soul-searching at the time, and I was wondering what it was really I wanted to do, because it was becoming apparent to me that I didn't want to work in advertising for the rest of my life. And then I thought back to the time I was last really happy doing something, and I realized it was when I was only nine years old and was writing and drawing all these picture books for myself. One of the modules I attended was Writing for Children. It was facilitated by Prof. Mailin Paterno-Locsin of UP. I really liked the writing exercises, and got particularly encouraged when Ms. Paterno-Locsin had very kind words for a particular piece I did. As the workshop wrapped up, Ms. Paterno-Locsin told us of the UP Writers Workshop that year that was going to be devoted to writing for children.

It was at the UP Writers Workshop in Baguio, with Prof. Amelia Lapena Bonifacio as director, that it became clearer to me what I wanted to do. By a happy stroke of luck, I got a seat on the bus next to [children's and YA book writer] Carla Pacis, and later after the workshop, we will be forming a group of writers for children which we will name Kuwentista ng mga Tsikiting (Writers for Children) and nickname Kuting (literally, "Kitten" in Filipino). For the first time I saw life outside of advertising as being feasible as I mingled with like-minded souls. Of course, children's literature in 1995 was not yet as big an industry back then as it is now. Back then, there were only a few players in all areas of the industry--publishing, illustration, writing.

At first, honestly, I wasn't really purposely writing for children as I was writing stories I would have liked to read as a child. At the start I was writing fairytale-type stories which I modelled after my favorite stories by Hans Christian Andersen and Oscar Wilde. But now that I have been writing for fifteen years in the genre, I would say I love the immediate feedback. I always go on book tours, so I am able to constantly interface with my readers, something which I think is less likely to happen if I wrote for adults. Adults hold back. Kids are very candid with their appreciation-- and also disapproval. One little girl wrote me a note and she said she wished I was her mother (I would later find out from their teacher that she is adopted). Another said she wished I would marry her uncle.

What inspired you to write Araw sa Palengke? What was your creative process when writing Araw sa Palengke? What were the challenges from writing the book?

On the morning of December 3, 2007, my publisher, Ms. Ani Almario sent me an e-mail asking if I had the time to write a short story about a child's first trip to the market. She said she hoped I would say yes, and also if she could see a first draft by the second week of January.

I had my hands full taking care of my son because we didn't have a maid that time, and so I was only able to read the e-mail late that night.

I was so thrilled. Here was my reply:

hi ani,

funny you should ask. i actually have a first-hand experience of going to the palengke for the first time (when i was only around three, at nepa-q-mart). and i would have forgotten all about it had my mom not recalled the story in a conversation we had recently. will work on it right away.

by the way, for what age reader would the book be?

thanks!
:) may

But I was too excited to wait for a reply, and thought I wouldn't be able to sleep anyway that night, so I started writing the story right away. Two hours later, I had a story (in Filipino) and an English translation!

I actually wrote two versions of Araw sa Palengke. The second one is longer and more detailed. I described all the major sections of the market--Meat, Fish, Poultry, Fruits and Vegetables, and the Dry Goods Section--the way I remembered them from my childhood trips to Nepa-Q-Mart (now Mega-Q-Mart). I gave all the vendors names and described them and their goods. It took me a week and a half to write.

The two versions were then subjected to a focus group discussion, I think, paneled by grade school kids. They preferred the first version, and this was the version Adarna published. It is the creative process for this that I'm going to discuss shortly.

{May's workspace}

I am not exactly a very organized person. I have difficulty sorting my files into folders (please see my desktop screen on the pic above), but I have--surprisingly--a very systematic method of writing. Maybe my advertising background has something to do with it. I worked in advertising for fifteen years--at first as an art director and then later, as a copywriter. As an art director who did storyboards, I was trained to tell a story using "key frames" where I depicted the visual plot. As a member of a concept team I worked closely with a copywriter who provided the audio script. There had to be an audio-video lock between visuals and copy if we wanted to have an effective commercial. I also learned the technique of having "sequence objectives" which is very helpful in building up the climax of the story. Whenever we presented a storyboard to the client, we explained the action and the copy frame by frame. Because we were telling stories in increments of a precious only 30 or 60 seconds, it was crucial for us to know precisely what each frame was contributing to the storytelling, or we junk it to put more time and emphasis on another frame. Each series of frames composed a sequence, and as an art director or a copywriter you had to justify the sequence by citing its objective--whether to expose the problem, then the options, and finally the solution that comes in the form of the brand or product you are advertising.

Araw sa Palengke, if you looked at it closely, is very structured. Because the story is semi-autobiographical, I already had a beginning (of a little girl waking up very early in the morning for market day) and an end (I knew I wanted to end with the girl getting a clay pot as a reward). For picture books I usually write and lay out the plot for 14 spreads. Now because I already had a beginning and an end, I only had to worry about what was going to happen for the 12 spreads in between. Because this was a picture book for very young kids who may not yet have ever set foot in a market, I wanted to give them a bird's eye view of the market in one colorful, illustrated spread--without any text. Which brought down the number of spreads which I still had to develop to 11. I had a strategy in developing the story. Maybe it's all the books I've been buying for my son (he was only one and a half years old then)--I wanted the book to be more than just a story but a vicarious experience. So I decided that the little girl in the story (whom I've named Nina though her name never appears in the book) will experience the palengke with her five senses--hearing, smell, touch, taste and sight.

I don't know if any other writer writes the way I do, but here goes. (I am giving away my trade secret here!) Back when I was still an art director who had to draw up a storyboard for 30 second commercials, I immediately drew up 20 rectangular frames on my sketchbook as soon as I began to work. There is nothing that terrifies me more than a blank page, so drawing the frames--even if I absolutely didn't have any idea how I would develop the story--always helped psyche me up for the task. At worst, if I was really having a bad day, I could always draw the product and client's logo in the last two frames, and it fooled my mind into thinking that I was getting somewhere because I already had two less frames to think about. Then the ideas would come to me as scenes, and I will lay out the action in what I thought to be the appropriate frames for them. This way, I was never pressured to do the storyboarding chronologically. My technique for writing is similar to this. Instead of key frames, though, I fill up each spread with narration.

I work directly on my computer using Microsoft Word. I give it a working title which I usually change in the course of the manuscript's development. Then I type the numbers 1 to 14 top to bottom to represent the spreads. And writing freely, I lay down the plot spread after spread. I try to imagine the spreads as pictures in my head, and write the text accordingly. Doing it this way, filling in the blanks, cutting and pasting text from one spread to the next, I see the rise and fall of the action, and I am able to pace the story as well because numbering the text helps me plan the conflict and the resolution. It allows me to see a part in proportion to the whole. It's very handy in visualizing in which part of the book I want a spread with just a visual and no text. Or where I want a spread to contain just one impactful line. Happily, Araw sa Palengke practically wrote itself. Nina's voice was very clear inside my head from the start. It was like I just had to write down what the little voice in my head was saying.

And it was very clear in my head, what Nina looked like, too. Right from the start, I had wanted Isabel Roxas to illustrate Araw sa Palengke.

My manuscript for Araw sa Palengke was very short, but my note to Jordan Santos, Adarna House's art director that time, was very long. I was worried the sparseness of my text would not be as inspiring to the illustrator. (At the time, the project had not yet been awarded to an illustrator.) So I wrote down vignettes of a day in the market as I remembered them from my childhood, to help the illustrator along, if he or she will do an ocular inspection. Then Adarna informed me that Isabel will be doing the illustrations. I was so happy! Adarna organized a story conference and we brainstormed. Then Isabel went to Farmer's Market in Cubao to shoot references for her illustrations which I would only see as the book was about to go to press already.

Maybe because I happen to be an illustrator too, that's why I am not so fond of adjectives and I loathe very detailed descriptions. I would rather draw them. As an illustrator I am not too crazy working on a manuscript that practically dictates what I illustrate. I like being given space to add a new dimension to the book. A picture book should be a collaboration between writer and illustrator. The text and visuals should complement each other.

Henry James was once quoted saying that he couldn't think of a passage of description that is "not in its intention narrative, a passage of dialogue that is not in its nature descriptive, a touch of truth of any sort that does not partake of the nature of incident." I love this quotation, and I always remind myself this whenever I write. A good description advances plot, well-thought out dialogue reveals character and carefully-wrought ideas cause emotions that resonate in the reader.

Thank you for the detailed description of your writing process! I really appreciate it, and I know blog readers do too.

Do you have any special or interesting market day stories from your own childhood or with your son?

Here is the back story for Araw sa Palengke. Having a toddler has given me the opportunity to bond with my mom in a totally new way. It also gave me reason to go over albums of my baby pictures with her. One day I remember asking my mom how I was when I was my son Anton's age (he was around a year and a half years old at the time), and she said I was a very good little girl, and she told me about the very first time she took me to the market.

She had just given birth to my younger sister then, and it was the first time in months she was going to the market again. And because the maid had her hands full with my baby sister, she took me along with her. Her "suki" (favorite vendors) were just too happy to see her--and me, she said. She gave me a little "bayong" (native woven shopping bag) to carry because she thought I looked cute with it and she carried this huge bayong big and wide enough to carry me inside. As we went around the market, and as she did her shopping, the vendors swooned (or so my mom says) over how cute I was, and by the time we were finished, my little bayong was filled with fruit and packages of native delicacies--some free, some paid for by my mom.

And the clay pot-and-stove set! Mommy always bought me and my sister clay pots because we always broke them. We got to cook real food in those clay pots; Mommy played with us. She made fire in the tiny clay stove using charcoal and crumpled bits of paper, and we boiled rice and vegetables over it in the tiny pot. Looking back, I think my mom was such a cool mom to play with her little girls. She was and, up to now still is, a full-time housewife who's a most wonderful cook.

If my mom had just given birth to my sister, I would have barely been three that time she took me to the market. I would have looked just slightly older than this:

{May at two years old}

You've officially made history. What's next for you?

Wow, I've never really thought of it that way. Maybe because I keep thinking the text I wrote is only part of the book, and the NCBA is a book award. Araw Sa Palengke, after all, is also about Isabel's lovely illustrations and the meticulous attention to details that Adarna House poured into it. But I would have to admit that, even before the NCBA, the project had already opened a lot of doors for me. I've gotten many projects from people who've told me they liked my work on Araw sa Palengke. I will forever be grateful to Ms. Ani Almario and Adarna House.

The NCBA, of course, is the icing on the cake. Finally, there is a body that recognizes and awards excellence in the creation of books for children, and it is such a laudable effort of the National Book Development Board and the PBBY. The award both inspires and motivates a writer like me to persevere at what I do.

I am currently wrapping up work for the fourth book in the Oishi PesoSmart Kids Series, the second and third of which are already in production. We launched the first one, Once I Was Rich, last year. Just recently, too, the two books I wrote--also on financial literacy for kids--commissioned by Insular Life and produced by Adarna House, were launched. I am so lucky I get to work with the country's best illustrators. The Oishi PesoSmart Kids Series are all being illustrated by Beth Parrocha-Doctolero. The two Insular Life books were illustrated by Isabel Roxas and Ariel Santillan.

I am discussing another series with another client, but thankfully it's not anymore on kiddie financial literacy. Hopefully it pushes through because it's an adventure series. I have a long list of other ideas I'd like to work on once I'm ready to take a break from doing commissioned work (hopefully by early next year), and they are most likely materials for YA novels which I will be pitching to publishers.

YA novels! I am really looking forward to that!

Thank you, May, for sharing so much with me and blog readers today.


Readers, go check out May's blog little wishing star!